SEMINOLE COUNTY, Fla. - In the mid-'80s, Sgt. Mark Dibona decided on a career. He decided to go into law enforcement, joining the Seminole County Sheriff's Office.
"I've been on the job now almost 34 years," he said.
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That's more than three decades of seeing people at their worst, day in, day out. Exposed to tragedy, violence and - at times - overwhelming sadness - Dibona took the advice of those before him and developed a tough guy mentality.
"We were told to toughen up, walk away, have a beer," he told WFTV reporter Lauren Seabrook.
"I took my gun out and I put it in my mouth."
But that hard shell was just that - a shell. The truth of his heart reveals a man who is deeply caring, deeply empathetic and devoted to the people he is committed to protecting.
"A family pulled up next to me about two or three o'clock in the morning and handed me their baby and said, 'My baby's not breathing,'" he recalled. "It seemed like it took forever when I was doing CPR. Unfortunately the baby didn't make it. But to this day, I can still feel the baby on my arm. And that took a toll on me."
Dibona said he felt like a failure. The stress of the job piled up. He gained weight. His temper was short. His attitude changed.
"I ended up writing a suicide note while I was sitting in my car and I taped it to my rearview mirror, and I took my gun out and I put it in my mouth," he told Seabrook.
He didn't pull the trigger that day. But he wasn't free of his problems. Twice he felt the barrel of his gun in his mouth.
"I thought it was something I would never do. Never in my life would I do that. But I actually tried it, and then I said, 'Seriously, I've got to get some help.'"
Sgt. Dibona's story isn't uncommon. The organization, Blue H.E.L.P., tracks law enforcement officer suicides. They withhold some of the identities of the officers to protect their families, but they say their data is verified. Between 2016 and 2018, 460 officers committed suicide. The majority of their deaths were caused by self-inflicted gunshot wounds, and the majority of them were men. In 2018, twenty-four of the officers who committed suicide called Florida home. Across the country, more officers now die by suicide than in the line of duty. As of publication, twice as many officers have taken their lives in 2019 as have been killed in the line of duty. The numbers they provided are in the table below.
Dibona took a leave of absence from his job. He checked himself into a facility to address his trauma. He continued with personal therapy. Doctors diagnosed him with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.
"I have to practice my own medicine. Take a deep breath and move on," he told Seabrook.
The National Center for PTSD estimates 8 percent of Americans have PTSD. For perspective, the U.S. government estimates as many as 20 percent of veterans who fought in Operations Iraqi Freedom or Enduring Freedom suffer from it. Studies focused on law enforcement have also found double-digit percentages among active-duty officers.
Dibona is not the first law enforcement officer who has shared his story with WFTV. While they did not share any medical diagnosis and WFTV did not ask to see their medical records, Sgt. Timothy O'Brien, Lt. Rob Vitaliano and Lt. Channing Taylor spoke with 9 Investigates reporter Daralene Jones about what they experienced after fatally shooting someone in the line of duty.
Sgt. Timothy O'Brien, a deputy with the Lake County Sheriff's Office,shot two people in two separate shootings in 2015. He is currently in couseling.
"I was stubborn for a while. I should've gotten some help sooner," he told Jones, "Taking a life is not something we're wired to do, and I've learned that."
"It does come out every once in a while, and I think about it, does bother me, keeps me awake at night sometimes," he told Jones.
"I wouldn't be here without it," he said.
Dibona eventually returned to work, committed to helping fellow law enforcement officers protect and serve their own health first. He even sits on the board of Blue H.E.L.P.
"I turned that around to the point where now I want to help others," he told Seabrook, "You've got to fight those demons and you've got to fight them full force."
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